This article investigates representations of the Korean War in South Korean cinema, focussing on Pak Kwangsu’s To the Starry Island and Yi Kwangmo’s Spring in My Hometown and using the notion of cultural imagination, in which cinematic representations contribute to collective understandings of war. The article builds from Isolde Standish’s 1992 analysis, which argued 1990s Korean War films took an opposite stance to previous representations of the war while continuing to rely on nationalistic and melodramatic discourses. This article argues that in terms of their representation of the causes and character of the Korean War and their formal characteristics, Korean War films from the 1960s onwards are marked by continuity and rely on many of the discourses identified by Standish to account for the conflict; namely an externalisation of blame, problem-solving violence, and a narrative structure that displaces historical problems onto individual dramas. I argue To the Starry Island and Spring in My Hometown are unique because they place a far greater burden of blame on the Korean population and provide genuine critiques of the Korean War’s destruction. The films produce more ambiguous readings of the violence and identify reprisals as a key feature of the conflict, a phenomenon largely neglected in other Korean War films. To the Starry Island avoids a more romanticised treatment of pre-war Korea, presenting more anonymous sites of conflict that detract from heroic narratives of national mythmaking. Spring in My Hometown is a formally challenging work, and both films implicate the viewer in a brutal conflict.
ROOTS OF THE WAR
THE CHARACTER OF CONFLICT
NARRATIVE AND STYLE
TO THE STARRY ISLAND AND SPRING IN MY HOMETOWN